This past Sunday, I preached the sermon below at the 8:00 a.m. service. But something happened after service. Here’s the sermon:
The righteousness that comes by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ does not lay claim of ownership to anything. The righteousness that comes by faith acts likes like a good tenant, tends the vineyard that has been entrusted to him or her, and provides accountability when it is due. The righteousness that comes by faith sets the tenant free, free enough to be accountable.
If there is one thing that we have all learned about our recent past, and are still learning, it is the fact that we cannot lay claim of ownership to anything - the least of which is our very own lives. We are tenants and from my experience of being a tenant, everything about a tenant is temporary. Remember your first apartment? You don’t still live in it. Remember when your landlord refused to give you back your security deposit because the landlord thought you were not a good tenant? We have all been tenants before and whether you were the best tenant or the worst tenant, everything about being a tenant is to be accountable for what is in your care. Failure to appreciate your temporal nature as a tenant and being accountable has serious repercussions.
In today’s gospel, Jesus reflects on dishonest and entitled servants with a parable of a landowner who planted a vineyard, leased it out to tenants, and went to another country. During harvest, he sent his slaves to collect his fair share of the produce - accountability.
God doesn’t invite accountability from us, God demands accountability from us. This demand is premised on the fact that there’s no free lunch. Salvation has been freely given to you. Redemption has been freely given to you. Your life has been freely given to you. Grace upon grace pours freely on you - without even asking for it.
There’s nothing that has been freely given to us that requires no accountability. I often remind my two older daughters that no one is ever going to give you something of value for free. Even me, your father, I don’t give you stuff for free - I hold you accountable for any and all things and there are always repercussions when you don’t hold up to your side of the bargain.
The gospel story is an interesting story. The tenants killed the first batch of servants who came to demand accountability. The landowner doesn’t relent. He didn’t console himself by saying, "Ah well, these people killed my servants so I would let them be." He sent a second batch larger than the previous one. And when he sent his son, someone of great importance, they killed him also.
For these people, the point really wasn’t about who it is that was sent to demand accountability, the point they wanted to make was that we will not allow ourselves to be held accountable for what has been freely given to our care. And it doesn’t matter who or how many people the landowner sends.
Unfortunately, this story reflects some of our approaches to stewardship - ownership and accountability. It is sad to say that sometimes some of us consider being accountable by giving to the church as doing some kind of favor. But we miss the overall point of being accountable stewards if that’s how we consider our giving to the church.
I believe that we have been given so much, the least of which is our lives. It may not be all perfect. Yes, we have experienced losses, illness, trials, tribulations, and a whole lot more. But as imperfect as our lives may be, as challenging as our lives may be, we still have life, and the fact that we have it should evoke some sense of gratitude. And that sense of gratitude ultimately leads to the joy of being accountable. You feel yourself being accountable, not because it is the right thing to do but because it is the highest point of your worship.
After the parable, Jesus asks this question, what will the landowner do? The response was, that he would destroy the tenants and lease the vineyard to those who can be accountable. Here are some questions for your pondering. Can you be accountable? Do you see yourself as being accountable? I want you to know that it is not how much you give that tells of how accountable you are, but are you a cheerful giver?
Here is the bright spot: when you are on the path of faith, you recognize your own vulnerability. When you are on the path of faith, you embrace your dependence on the source of your faith and the author of your life. When you are on the path of faith you see yourself as a tenant whose sole duty is to tend the vineyard. When you are on the path of faith you know yourself to be accountable in all circumstances to all people and to the author of faith. When you are on the path of faith you recognize, above all else, that being a tenant in any vineyard is not only temporal, but it is a gift for which you did not labor and which you do not deserve.
This was the piece that was missing in Paul’s life - the righteousness that comes through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, freely given and so lays no claim of ownership over anything. Rather, the one who is full of faith is understood to be owned by our Lord Jesus Christ, encumbered to Christ, and subjects the self to Christ.
Paul did not know this stuff. All through his life, he had embodied all that could have been wrong and spiritually crumbling. He was confident in the flesh. Circumcised on the eighth day. A member of the tribe of Israel, a Benjaminite, a Hebrew born of Hebrews. As to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
This self-understanding created a sense of entitlement which made him and others like him act like the tenants we read in the gospel - tenants who forcefully rejected being accountable.
But by the grace of God, Paul came upon the knowledge of God’s grace. That is why he could consider all that he had known all his life and had defined him as rubbish. That is why Paul could lose all things and still gain everything because he had no claim of ownership over anything - his only claim to something was being a child of God. All else has been freely given to him - he is simply a steward of God’s grace. He was owned by Christ as much as you and I are owned by Christ Jesus.
The essence of the grace that has been freely given to him was such that he could no longer feel any sense of entitlement. He knew that the grace was free, but he also knew he had to be accountable, and for that reason Paul never stopped working till he died.
To know Christ Jesus is to be free - to experience the righteousness that comes with faith is to be free. To be free is to be accountable. To be free is to be a good steward. To be free is to be a good tenant. To be free is to lay claim to nothing but the prized possession of being God’s child. To be truly free is to serve the other. And this kind of freedom rejects any sense of entitlement and embraces the joy that comes with gratitude. A grateful heart doesn’t ask why, but how can I help?
This stewardship season, I am deeply reminded of being a tenant. I am a tenant who knows Christ Jesus and recognizes the beautiful gift of life that we all have. I am a tenant who knows Christ Jesus, and because I do, I do not feel entitled, nor do I lay any claim of ownership over anything. I am a tenant who knows Christ Jesus, and because I do, I dutifully tend the vineyard which has been freely given to my care. And because I am a tenant who knows Christ Jesus, I dare to be accountable.
The righteousness that comes from faith does not lay claim of ownership to anything because everything is of God. The righteousness that comes with faith acknowledges that everything we have has been freely given by God. Our task is to be good tenants. Are you a good tenant? Have you been accountable?
Maybe, like Paul, you can forget all that happened in the past and strive for the goal that is ahead of you - the goal of being a good and accountable tenant who has been found by Christ and is in Christ. And because you are in Christ, your highest joy is to be accountable. Welcome back to God’s vineyard. Amen.
After worship, I saw a gentleman neatly dressed standing outside Old Brick. It was my first time seeing him on our campus so I immediately thought that he was probably coming to worship. But then upon seeing me, he turned and began walking away from Old Brick. But he turned back, and as he walked towards Old Brick, I walked towards him.
I asked him how he was doing and if he was here for worship. In response, he narrated a long story that basically made the point that he had a family and was struggling and needed some help. He has been in jail before, but he came by the church to ask for help because he didn’t want to make the same mistake that would send him back to jail.
As I listened to his story, the sermon I had just preached came alive. Did it matter if I believed his story? No, it didn’t. The question was, how can I help? I thought about sending him money by Zelle, but then I figured, I could give him some gift cards. So, I asked him to wait. I came to my office and found that fortunately, I had three gift cards left. I took all three and gave them to him - they were freely given, and freely to be given away.
There’s a blessing that comes with knowing that we are each accountable. Our stories may not line up, our stories may be different, and our stories may have gaps in them. If there’s one thing that I am grateful for, I am grateful to God for Christ Church, for putting us where we are, and for reminding us that we are here to serve a particular purpose. One of them is to help the gentleman who came by the church on Sunday. If for nothing at all, he knew that this place, Christ Church was where he could get some help for himself and his family on a Sunday morning.
If there’s one thing that I learned about last Sunday, it reinforced the idea that we are each accountable to God and to others, for all the gifts that have been freely given to us.
If there's one more thing I learned about last Sunday, it is that rendering an account of our stewardship is not an invitation where you can choose to honor it or not. God demands that we be accountable stewards.
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